Field of Science

Do people reject evolution because it unnerves them?

Do you ever get the feeling that one reason a lot of people can't stomach the theory of natural selection is that they hate the idea that everything we see around us is the result of blind chance. Hostility to the notion of chance is certainly a recurrent theme in creationist objections.

Of course, evolution by natural selection is not really evolution by chance, as the creationists claim. But even so chance does play a role. Stephen Gould, in many of his essays, repeatedly drove home the importance of chance (or rather, contingency) in evolution. As he argued in the essay "Eight little piggies", there doesn't seem to be any particular reason that we have five fingers, rather than 6, or 7, or 8. That's just the cards we drew.

But there is another perspective, championed recently by Simon Conway Morris in his book Life's Solution. He emphasises rather more the many occasions of convergent evolution, and makes the controversial case that the development of sentient life was more-or-less inevitable - in flat contradiction to Stephen Gould.

I say all this by way of introduction to a rather intriguing study by Bastiaan Rutjens, at the University of Amsterdam. Along with his colleagues, he's been looking at how threatening people's sense of personal control can change their attitudes.

He takes his inspiration from Aaron Kay, at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, who has shown that making people feel like they are not in control causes them to activate beliefs that restore their sense that something, at least, is in control - like a belief in a controlling God, or support for a strong government. It's a theory called compensatory control.

What Rutjens did was to prime students (140 in total) by asking half of them to write about a bad experience when they did not feel in control, and also to give three reasons why the future is not controllable. The other half did a similar task, but emphasising and reinforcing their sense of control.

Next, they were given three short descriptions of various theories of evolution, and asked which one they thought more likely to be true. The three theories were Intelligent Design (ID), the Theory of Evolution but emphasising its randomness (TE), and the "Conway Morris" Theory of Evolution (CMTE).

The graph shows what they found. Now, remember this is The Netherlands, so most of the students were pretty godless. Without the 'loss of control' priming, almost none of them approve of ID - or, for that matter, CMTE.

But when primed to feel loss of control, the students were much more likely to prefer either ID or CMTE (although still a large majority accepted evolution).

So the students seem to compensate for their feeling of anxiety and uncertainty induced by their loss of control by turning to theories about life that reassure them that there is some kind of plan in place.

All this may help explain why evolution is unpopular in parts of the world where life is full of uncertainty. And it might help explain why religion and rejection of evolution so often go hand in hand. Both are tools that provide compensatory control.

But what's really interesting is that ID and CMTE seem to be interchangeable. I wonder if presenting Darwinian evolution in CMTE terms might help to get religious people on board. After all, Conway Morris is himself a Christian, which has perhaps influenced his views on evolution!

ResearchBlogging.orgRutjens, B., van der Pligt, J., & van Harreveld, F. (2010). Deus or Darwin: Randomness and belief in theories about the origin of life Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 46 (6), 1078-1080 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2010.07.009

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.


  1. SCW also rejects the use of phylogenetic reasoning because he thinks convergence is the more significant, and in fact holds (based on several talks he gave last year in Notre Dame) that no matter what the evolutionary process, humans would evolve. I take him to be an exemplary case of someone who finds evolution of the ordinary theoretical kind to be unsettling for religious reasons.

  2. (1) Curious: how old were the students? I would think they would opinions about this issue before the experiment if there were older, and if they were too young, I can't imagine them reading a summary of the theories that explains them well enough for an informed choice during this short experiment.

    (2) If that graphing method common? I expected a spot for each theory with those two options -- my eye would compare.

  3. SCM's view of evolution is marred by his religious views. Honestly, nothing he says about evolution means much because of this problem.

  4. makes the controversial case that the development of sentient life was more-or-less inevitable - in flat contradiction to Stephen Gould.

    I've heard the argument made -- and I wish I could cite who it was, I think just some random commenter at Pharyngula -- that, although this is nothing like hard evidence, based on the amount of time it took in our one case study for certain developments to arise, we can probably conclude that:

    1) Unicellular and simple multicellular life is probably not too awfully uncommon on reasonably hospitable planets.
    2) Complex lifeforms (a la the Cambrian explosion) are probably fairly rare
    3) Once you have complex lifeforms, sapience is probably fairly inevitable and occurs rather rapidly
    4) Once you have sapience, technology blossoms in the blink of an eye

    Of course, like I say, this is just guessing from one single isolated case study. It could be just random coincidence that the timescales lined up in such a way. But it seems a reasonable guess.

    Note that I am not advancing an idea of there being a "continuum" of evolution converging on a particular idealized endpoint or any such nonsense. I'm just saying that it seems reasonable, given the relative time scales, it does not seem to much of a stretch to imagine that sapience is a niche that tends to get filled rather rapidly once you have the groundwork in place.

  5. Sabio: (or is it Josen now???) (1)The students were undergrads, so 18-21. They were all aware of evolution, and most of them accepted it prior to the study.

    (2) They were actually split into three roughly equal groups, and each group had to choose between two alternative theories. So that mirrors what the graph shows.

  6. Bjorn: well you say that, but maybe your view is marred by your atheist views :)

    Point is that there's always a range of ways to interpret the evidence. SCM has come up with an interpretation that fits the evidence but that doesn't put too much cognitive strain on his other beliefs. It's what we all do.

  7. @ Tom
    Yeah, still deciding if to keep two sites, two pen names or what? Or maybe it would be simpler to titrate my psych meds. :-)
    Thanks for the additional study info!

  8. still thinking. I'm not religious and there is some good level of certainty around my life. But I've read a lot of science material (I'm a fun) and evidence compared to chance is what I fancy. I think the theory of evolution only help advance scientific study and that's where it remains. It cannot explain to me why man has remained man and monkeys have remained monkeys. I didn't have to live in a perfect world to buy into anything. I love your attempt though


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